Imagine being surrounded by mountains in each direction, staring out at a beautiful valley, hearing nothing but the sounds of the wind and the jingling of the bells coming from the local sheep. Now imagine sitting on the beach, trying to take a nap to the sound of children screeching and your least favorite music coming from the person’s iPhone next to you. Which version of Crete would you like to see? I’ll take the former.
While I do enjoy the occasional trip to a busy amusement park and walking around crowded cities, when it comes to beaches, I do not settle for the popular spots. Trust me when I tell you that I can find the quietest spots to swim in, even in the most touristy places. In this week’s episode of Where in the World is Alex Sandiego, I’ll tell you about my 6 day road trip through Crete, the largest island in Greece.
My journey in Crete started where most people start: Heraklion. I had only booked my flight from Istanbul 48 hours prior, and my car rental was booked no more than 6 hours before. I usually book accomodation for at least the first night I arrive in a new place, but after that I like to leave it open ended, even if I have a time constraint.
After spending two hours gathering my rental car— I wouldn't suggest Goldcar, just stick with the trusted names like Europacar— I was off into the wild blue yonder that is the isle of Crete. The island is quite large, and 6 days is not even close to enough to see it all, so I decided to stick to exploring everything west of Heraklion, which is pretty much the center of the island. I had heard that Chania and Rethymno were good bases… but I knew I wouldn’t be sticking around the cities long. After all, I came here to see secluded beaches, authentic Greek mountain villages, and winding roads with drops down to the sea. But, knowing me I am bound to have some sort of ridiculous mishap within my first day of a new journey… and on this trip it happened only 12 hours in.
After a long day of traveling from Istanbul, and what felt like an even longer evening of trying to retrieve my rental car in Heraklion I finally arrived around 11:30pm in Rethymno, where I had booked a hostel in the old city for my first night. By the time I arrived in the city, I was exhausted and ready to be done traveling for the day. The hostel was on a pedestrian street, and the main street had no parking spaces, so I was a bit confused on where I could legally park. Now if you read my last post [on Iceland], you know that I had no clue how to drive manual…. buuuut, things have changed since that trip a year ago and NOW I CAN DRIVE MANUAL TRANSMISSION! …..but not very well. I still find myself getting stuck on hills, spending five minutes parallel parking in a spot that would take me 10 seconds with automatic, and lurching backwards when I shift from first to second gear. But, the biggest issue I’ve had with every different car I’ve rented is reverse; until I google it, I JUST DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET THE DAMN THINGS INTO REVERSE. The problem is each car is so different, that not one of them has had the same way to do it. So each and every time I’ve driven the car off the rental lot, and not realized I didn’t know how to reverse it until I’ve already driven to my first destination. So here I was, sitting at the toll entrance to the parking lot trying to figure out the pricing at this lot.
Whatever. I’m too tired to care. I’ll pay whatever it is. Besides, I don’t even know how to reverse this car out of here anyway.
And so I drove right into the lot…. ignoring some very, very important signage. It said:
No parking Wednesday midnight to Thursday 15:00 due to the market.
Sure enough, the next morning the parking lot had completely transformed into a full scale market. My car was wedged between a truck, grape seller, and ice cream vendor. What else could I do but wait? At first I was upset, but when I found out that a German friend I'd met in Mexico two years prior was also in town I headed over to her hotel for an afternoon on the beach. Minus the incident, Rethymno was a nice place to start a journey in Crete, but from there on out I knew I'd be spending most of my time in the villages. Once my car was free of the disaster the was the market, I headed up to a small village about thirty minutes away called Argiroupolis. My home for the night was at a guesthouse called Lappa Apartments run by a lovely woman named Sarah (with her 6 year old son's "help").
To add to the bizarre events of the day, it turned out that once a year people hike up the road all the way from Rethymno, 30 kilometers away to make a pilgrimage to the town above Argiroupolis. There is a church there that is believed to have healing powers and grant prayers to come true and of course, the pilgrimage was that day. Because of this, there were as many parking restrictions as there could be for a village of 400. After a half an hour I finally found a spot down the road and arrived at Sarah's little slice of paradise.
Sarah is originally from Germany, but married and had a son with a Greek man. Now running the hotel, she was sympathetic towards my stressful day, gave me lots of tips of where to go, and gave me an idea of what life in Greece truly is like. I'm eternally grateful for her hospitality and would highly recommend staying at her place.
The next morning I ventured down to the southern part of the island, where they say it's significantly warmer due to winds coming off of Northern Africa. Now, if there's one thing to know about me it's the fact that I LOVE beaches. I could seriously spend my entire life on a giant treasure hunt for the world's best beaches. And the best ones are of course, the quiet ones. So seriously, don't ask me if I like resort beaches, filled with package holiday tourists... ask me to find beaches like this:
The ones where you have to climb down a sand dune to get there or the ones nestled between giant cliffs, covered with fog, or even the beach that's busy during the day but silent in the evenings after all the day trippers leave-- these are the beaches that I will find.
At first I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to find this mysterious beach, Agiofarago Beach and in fact it wasn't until the next day that I realized I HAD found it.
There are two places to park near Agiofarago Beach: one is near Saint Paul beach (which you see on this map as Agios Pavlos Beach) and the other is at the top of the hill, right above it. I accidentally navigated myself down to the busier beach and simply took the stairs past the beach, up to the top of the cliff where you'll find the view point (labeled as 'Apoplystra' on the map). Keep following the dirt path about 300 meters up and at the top you'll see the secret beach below. It seems that you can also park up there if you go down the road from "Meltemi", but for a compact car I'd suggest just sticking with the other road which is fully paved.
After a few hours of sun I headed back to the village and stopped for dinner at Arhaia Lappa Taverna, right down the road from the village. The food in Greece is delectable; it's fresh, green, and the olive oil is the freshest you'll ever taste— I even ate salads without vinegar, which if you happen to know my eating habits, is unheard of.
Sarah had also recommended that I try a restaurant which is located down the main road, right before the next village, Episkopi. She told me it's the kind of restaurant with home cooking you won't forget. Unfortunately I had trouble finding it, and moved on from the village before I got a chance to look for it. The sign of the restaurant says, 'Κήπος της Αρκούδαινας' which supposedly means 'The Bear' and has a large image of a bear outside the restaurant. I've finally found it on google maps... a few weeks too late. If you get there before me, let me know how it is!
Speaking of food, another one of my favorite places that I stayed and ate in was Panorama Askifou, about 30 minutes up the mountain from another South coast port town called Sfakia. Panorama is right off the main road in a small town on a plateau and is run by a local family. When I walked in, I saw grandma cooking and the father pulling apart greens and with that, I knew this place was a gem. Only the son spoke English, but he gave me a good deal on a room. Normal price was 45 euros, but because it was already evening he gave me a room (that sleeps four!) with a huge private balcony and incredible views for 30 euro. You can't even get a Motel 6 for this much in the US...
The same day I arrived at Panorama I had spent the day on another hunt for a great beach. This time I decided to take the boat from Sfakia over to Loutro. On the map it looked like a sleepy fishing village, but as soon as I got on the ferry with hundreds of other foreigners carrying suitcases and backpacks I realized I was wrong. While the town was very scenic, I wasn't interested in being surrounded by Germans and English people, and so I took a walk around the peninsula to a hotel and restaurant with a private beach. There's two ways to get over to The Phoenix: one is walking around the peninsula on a flat, dusty trail and the other is over the hill. Going over the hill is definitely faster, but steeper. Because I was wearing flip flops I decided to take the long way.
After cooling off in the water, I had a greek salad over at the restaurant and then rented a strange looking, metal "kayak". Sadly I didn't get any photos on my journey, but I can tell you that it was the highlight of the day. I paddled about a 20 minutes out to the next bay where I not only saw people hiking above the cliffs (which I think you can do to get to a super quiet beach a few hours down by foot), but dozens and dozens of goats resting in the cave below these steep cliffs. How on earth they even got down there is a mystery to me. If I had more time, I would've kept going, but I needed to return my little vessel in order to catch the ferry back to Sfakia. You can also do a day trip from Loutro to Marmara beach or Sweet Water beach which has some cafes and sun beds; I heard from some other travelers was still lovely and not too busy. If you're feeling super adventurous, you could probably even kayak over to Marmara beach from Phoenix (I imagine it'd be about an hour one way, depending on how fast you go).
The run down on the towns that the ANENDYK ferries go to is as follows:
•Sfakia is where most people get on the boat, as it is accessible by road. The ferries that stop at both Loutro and Agia Roumeli depart at 10:30am, 1pm, and 6:30pm. If you're just going to Loutro they run at 10:30, 12:00pm, 1pm, 2pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm, 6:30pm. Although the schedule says these are the times from August 18th-October 31st, so better to check the ferry's official website with timetables as they may change based on the season.
•Loutro seemed like a nice place to visit, but it was quite busy and you probably wouldn't need much time to explore the town itself as it's quite small. I'm sure it calms down overnight, but I got the feeling that out of all the towns reachable by boat it's the most popular, therefore I didn't explore the town at all.
•Agia Roumeli is only accessible by boat or on an 8 mile hike through the Samaria Gorge. If you're feeling adventurous, you'll have to start from the top at Omalos, which I will tell you more about shortly. If you can hike quick enough, the beaches are pretty quiet before 2:30pm when the first day trippers arrive and the crowds start to fill in from the end of the hike.
•Sougia is the other town accessible by road and was probably my favorite town I went to in this area. At 5:30pm the boat from Roumeli brings all the hikers back here, where most of them load onto buses departing for Chania. But, I decided to stay the night in this little seaside village at a place called Anchor Rooms. It was above a restaurant called Anchorage, which was absolutely AMAZING. Here I had the best seafood in two years (last place that was this good was in Bergen, Norway and it costs seven times the price). The folks who own the place were lovely, and honestly if I could eat there every day I probably would. I highly recommend the pasta with seafood, which includes shrimp, mussels, squid, and other creatures of the sea.
•Palaiochora is one other place you can take the boat to. I didn't go here, so I am not qualified to give you tips on it, although it just seems like another busy town connected by road... but I could be wrong. If you do happen to go, let me know what it's like!
And now I present to you the most majestic part of my week on the isle of Crete: Samaria Gorge...
By the end of the hike the sun was beating down, and I was ready to jump in the sea. Fortunately the town of Agia Roumeli is just 3 kilometers down the road, and to the relief of my blistered feet, there was a bus for 2 euro to go straight down the road into town. Worth the extra money? YEP. It seemed I made it earlier than the majority of the hikers and at this point the beach was still pretty quiet. There's several restaurants that have sunbeds which you can sit in for free if you purchase food. If not, you have to pay but I doubt it's more than a few euro.
At 5:30 I took the boat over to Sougia where I'd be staying for the night. As I mentioned, Sougia is usually just a point of transfer for folks heading back to their bases in Chania. But man, was I happy that I decided to stay there for the night. The beach was pebbly, but peaceful and clean. I think that this was one of my favorite spots that I stayed in. While there isn't so much to do there, I would HIGHLY recommend staying after your hike.
After a solid sleep in Sougia, I hopped on the 12:30pm bus back up to Omalos, where I picked up my trusty little Toyota Auris to return it in Heraklion. On the way out I stopped at Bali beach, which was packed with tourists and not even worth mentioning other than this single sentence. I figured it'd be easier to stay in the city of Heraklion and give myself the following day to explore, before my flight to Barcelona. I didn't have such high expectations, but it turned out that the capital city of the island was actually quite charming. I didn't get any photos due to my phone dying for good that day and my camera not being charged, but take my word that it's not a bad place to spend some time in.
I stayed at an apartment at the edge of the old city wall. The area was full of narrow streets, whitewashed buildings (typical Greece), and surprise passageways. As my taxi driver dropped me off, he told me that the restaurant on the corner called 'Οτι, Θες' (address is: Leof. Plastira 85, Iraklio 712 01, Greece and google shows it translated as 'Anything') was great for traditional Cretan meat dishes. Kristos, the older gentleman who owns the apartment recommended two different restaurants that both serve small dishes: Vourvouladiko and Kafeneion O Lakkos.
Lakkos had mainly outdoor seating and seemed popular with 20 somethings looking for a place to sit and talk with their friends. As it turned out, my waitress was a super friendly young women who has a passion for the United States... and American people. After taking my order, she told me that she "couldn't help but notice my American accent", and gave me her phone number if I wanted to ever hang out. I ended up spending the following day with her, walking around the city. She's from the island and has traveled just a bit, but has a great desire to see the US. Coming from a country that isn't doing so well economically, just being able to afford a roundtrip flight to North America seemed like something in the distant future, but I have faith that this passionate young woman will make her dreams of seeing America a reality.
I've been to many places in the world and I cannot say I've liked all of them, but I enjoyed every second of my week in Crete. I think that Greece is even becoming one of my top five favorite places in the world. Maybe it's just because I resonate with the Mediterranean culture, but I know I'll be coming back to this island and encourage anybody who is loves warm people, delicious, healthy food, quaint mountain towns, and crystal clear seas to visit Crete.